Home Expat Blogs Understanding How Pharmacies Work in Mexico

Understanding How Pharmacies Work in Mexico

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Pharmacist at work
Credit: Kadmy | Thinkstock

Understanding how pharmacies work in Mexico is important information for expats as well as travelers to this country. There are a lot of pharmacies here. In a city you may find more than one on a block, perhaps even three or four. Even in the countryside, there will typically be several pharmacies in every small town. They may even have one that is open for 24 hours, although you may have to bang on the door at four in the morning to wake the pharmacist.

Most medications, with the exception of narcotics and recently, antibiotics, are available without a prescription and you can have a taxi driver pick up medications and deliver them to you if you are too ill to go yourself.

There are basically two kinds of pharmacies, or farmacias as they are known in Mexico: those that are allowed to dispense prescribed narcotics and those that are not. By far, the overwhelming numbers are the latter group. In fact, finding a physician willing to prescribe a narcotic or a pharmacy to dispense them may be a challenge, even if required for the legitimate treatment of pain or for palliative care. Both are monitored and subject to serious penalties if a doctor or pharmacist is found to have violated the law. Mexico is not a good place to seek narcotics.

Farmacias will vary from the tiniest storefront with a little counter and one pharmacist, to Sanborns, the upscale pharmacy with departments selling everything from boxes of candy to clothing, magazines and the latest music and videos on disc.

Many pharmacies have medical consultorios situated next door where, for 25 or 30 pesos, you can have a (typically) fresh-out-of-medical-school doctor look at your throat, take your temperature, check your blood pressure and write you several prescriptions that you can have filled for a few dollars at the pharmacy. In fact, there is an industry phenomenon in Mexico—generic medications—sold by a chain of pharmacies known as Farmacias Similares. Their mascot, often found dancing to upbeat music in an over-sized costume, is “Doctor Simi,” a familiar figure who is either loved or loathed by passers-by.

In Mexico, it is common for people to consult a pharmacist when they are ill before they see a private physician, partly because pharmacists do dispense based on their own evaluation or because the patient wants a certain medicine, and partly because the pharmacist is free or the affiliated consultorio is low cost, making it affordable to people on limited incomes.

Reliance on medications is a long-standing tradition in Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, there was already a vast body of knowledge about medicinal plants among the indigenous peoples here. The Aztecs identified and used about 400 different herbal remedies and recorded many of these in their codices, book-like written and illustrated records. This tradition continues both in the sense that many of these remedies are still used in the countryside and it is common to find people selling herbs as remedies in the local marketplaces—and in wide proliferation of the modern-day farmacia.

Of course, the dark side of this tradition is that the easy access to medications leads to self-diagnosis and self-prescribing with the erratic results you might expect. I recently visited a friend who was hospitalized by a physician after he had received “treatments” at a pharmacy-affiliated consultorio for the following infections: eye, stomach, throat, diarrhea, jock itch and what seemed to be a serious inflammation of the leg. When he finally was seen by a private physician, more dead than alive, he was immediately hospitalized where he remained for five days for a life-threatening thrombosis, followed by nearly two months of bed rest.

So, the lesson is: for anything more serious than a sneeze or a bug bite, it’s a good idea to see a physician who isn’t working for a pharmacy.

If you need assistance finding a specific medication in Mexico, especially those prescribed in the U.S. or Canada, there is more information on this subject available in my book “The English Speaker’s Guide to Medical Care in Mexico,” available on Amazon.

9 COMMENTS

  1. This was a very good overview Monica.

    One additional point to mention is that sometimes a pharmacist at a big pharmacy, like at Walmart or Farmacia Guadalajara, will tell you “you need a prescription from your doctor for this.” It always pays to check at smaller Farmacias because sometimes they will sell you that medicine (not a narcotic) without you having to pay to see your doctor to get a prescription. At least we have found that to be the case here in the state of Jalisco where we live.

    • Compounding pharmacies are rare in the USA, and even rarer I would guess, in Mexico. In Spanish they are called “farmacia de composición” and I was only able to find one online. Of course, there could certainly be more, but finding them is another matter. I was not able to find a “consejo” or professional board that might maintain a central list. The one instance I found is in Puerto Vallarta at 52 322 114 0831. I didn’t try the phone and the website (BioH.mx) triggered browser warnings. Perhaps readers here can share others. However, unless you speak Spanish, finding this specialty and communicating your needs could be a challenge.

  2. Are the medications available in Mexico the same strength and purity as the ones in the USA? I have heard they are sometimes sold with key ingredients missing or adulterated. Perhaps this is something US citizens are told to keep up buying the higher priced Meds in the US.

    • What US pharmaceutical companies don’t tell you is that many of drugs they sell in the US under their own labels are actually manufactured in Mexico. The Mexican Health Ministry, a powerful government agency, oversees the manufacturing and sales of Mexican produced drugs.
      If you spend any time in Mexico, it soon becomes obvious that there are all kinds of pirated
      (counterfeit) products: music CDs, movies, video games, clothing, etc. Pirated medications have even started showing up in pharmacies. Pirated popular sellers, especially diabetes treatments, but even aspirin have been found primarily in small, independent pharmacies in border towns.

      There are ways to make sure the meds you buy in Mexico are chemically the same as the ones you purchased in the US and to avoid copy cats (I write a lot about pharmaceuticals in my book) but the best advice is to buy from a large chain pharmacy and avoid the others.

  3. Beware of asking for advice from Farmacia Guadalajara. Their typical shift includes working the front counter, the deli counter, and sweeping the floor. Not to be disrespectful…Their doing their job, …but advice? Go see.A doctor!.

  4. In 2018 march – I bought xanax in Puerto vallarta no problem. Downtown there was pharmacies on almost every block with signs for xanax, valium, vigra, ect…

    In 2018 December I tried to buy Xanax from a small pharmacy and she said not without seeing a doctor. Two minutes later the girl chased me down the street and said come back in 20 minutes with cash. It was double the price i paid in PV in march but I still got it.

    I think they have different rules in different States.

    Usually if you do actually see the doctor (for maybe like 20-50 American) the will usually prescibe you whatever you want.

    If they say no, ask again quietly and say you can pay cash. If they still say no, head to the next pharmacy and try again. The smaller the pharmacy the more likely.

  5. I have traveled and lived in Jalisco and my out last stay was last fall. I and my husband had the same prescriptions filled around Amapas that we have here in the US. Ambien, Xanax, albuterol. We have not had problems in the past.

    We have been trying go get flights to Baja ( and I need a veneer replaced). Am I understanding that we may be up a creek if we need refills now?

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